HC Deb 02 March 1966 vol 725 cc1442-5

10.1 p.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable a further marriage to be contracted by either spouse when a separation has persisted for five years. This is the third time that I have introduced under the Ten-Minute Rule a Bill for the strengthening of marriage. I hope and trust that in the next Parliament it will have a chance of becoming law.

There is a very strong need for reform, as is certainly shown in the many heartrending letters which I have received on this subject from those who suffer from the operation of the present law. I am certain that the law on this matter is rejected by public opinion. This is shown by some interesting facts. First, everybody is upset by the very large increase in recent years in the illegitimate birth rate, but what is not fully realised is that 40 per cent. of the illegitimate births nowadays are to stable families where men and women are living together as fathers and mothers of these families, and that two-thirds of the illegitimate children born to women over 25 are to such stable families.

The effect of my Legitimacy Act, 1959, has made it possible, when marriage subsequently takes place between persons to whom a child has been born out of wedlock, for the child to be legitimated, and very many children have been legitimated under that Act. If it were possible for a marriage to be terminated after five years' separation, and for the partners living together then to marry, a greater proportion of the children now called illegitimate, though living in stable families, could be legitimated under the 1959 Act. I am certain that that would be of enormous advantage to the spirit of those families and the children being brought up in them.

Another interesting point is that the number of children in these de facto marriages is very large. It appears that the number of children of divorcees is very much smaller. In its studies of marriage and divorce, the Royal Commission was asked to study the number of children of divorcees. Unfortunately, it did not do this, but it is not disputed that the number of children of divorcees is fairly small in many cases, fortunately. Perhaps it is because sexual incompatability is one of the reasons which leads to the breakdown of a marriage.

Many arguments are advanced against the proposed change in the law. First, it is suggested that it would weaken the position of a wife. Various safeguards have been introduced into my proposed Bill which are very important. The Bill would lay down that a divorce on the ground of five years' separation should not be agreed to by a court unless the court is satisfied that adequate arrangements have been made to safeguard the financial interests of the wife and any children of that marriage.

It is further suggested that the children in these cases particularly would suffer. I would have thought that at the present time, the financial needs of fatherless children, whether fatherless as the result of divorce, or desertion of the wife, or because the wife has been widowed, were very much the same. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is carrying out an inquiry into our social services, and I suggest that there is a strong case for looking at the whole position of fatherless children as a single problem and making suggestions for dealing with this problem as a whole. It is alleged that the morals of our country would be weakened if such a change took place. It is very much better to bring our laws into line with the present-day facts. It is better that the law should be alive to what people think is right and reasonable if one is to have a strong moral feeling in the country.

It is also said that there are many religious objections to such a change. It is interesting to note that the Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that there might be a case for examining the position to see whether divorce by consent should be arranged in certain circumstances. With due respect to the Archbishop, that is not the problem. If two people want a divorce they can easily have one nowadays. They can arrange adultery, or take action which the courts will think to be adultery and get the divorce. What is required is a change in the law to allow remarriage without the consent of the other party.

It is important that the law should meet the needs of all sections of the population and not those of any one section. The law has to make sense, not only to Protestants, but to Roman Catholics, Jews, Mohammedans, humanists, and agnostics. Unless the law does make sense to all sections of the population it is not adequate to meet the needs of today. It is alleged frequently that the main objections to allowing a partner of a marriage which has broken down to remarry are religious. Far more often the real ground is revenge to prevent the other partner have a second chance of a happy marriage. That is thoroughly wrong.

The various Protestant Churches have had various rules allowing divorce at different times. I agree with Archbishop Cranmer, who took the view that if a marriage had broken down and one partner had been long absent from the other, the sooner the marriage ended the better. That is not the view of the Roman Catholic Church and many other people who agree with the Roman Catholic Church in this matter. There is no reason, however, why our law should allow one partner to limit the freedom of the other.

The person who takes the view that marriage is for life can follow that rule. Any Church can make rules for its own members and expel them if they are not carried out. But no partner has a right to lay down rules governing the partner, when they do not belong to the same Church, or hold the same views on marriage. This is a form of religious persecution. The law in Australia allows people to remarry after five years of separation. In 1959, Australia decided, after full inquiry to have a federal law on marriage and divorce. This had been the law in Western Australia for many years previously and it had worked successfully. It was, therefore, adopted into the law of the Commonwealth, and has worked well.

The time has come when we should adopt a similar law here. It is necessary to safeguard the financial rights of a wife and the children of a marriage, but that is no reason why, if that is done, there should not be an opportunity for either party of the marriage to make a fresh start after five years' separation.

Why five years? Previous Bills have been introduced into the House suggesting seven years as a reasonable period of time for a separation and then remarriage. My hon. Friend the Member for Flint, East (Mrs. White) brought in such a Bill in 1950 which was passed by a majority of the House before the matter was referred to a Royal Commission. I think that now, in view of the Australian experience, five years is a much more reasonable time. Five years is a long time if a marriage has broken down and if people wish to make a fresh start. It is one-tenth of a person's adult life. I should have thought it desirable that if a marriage had broken down the sooner people could make a fresh start and try to make a success of a second marriage, the better.

I therefore commend to the House that we should make a change in the law to allow a divorce after five years' separation, it being a bona fide separation and there being no likelihood of the parties coming together again.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Parker, Mr. Michael Foot, Sir Barnett Stross, Mr. Taverne, and Mr. David Weitzman.